For north Pinellas County, the era of red-light cameras begins this weekend.
On Sunday, Clearwater and Oldsmar will start issuing warnings to drivers who run red lights at six monitored intersections. And in a month, they'll start writing tickets with $158 fines.
Both cities have gone through a tangled, start-and-stop process to get to this point. They've both grappled with a running nationwide debate: Are red-light cameras just cities' moneymaking schemes, a Big Brother-ish invasion of privacy? Or are they a way to restore sanity to intersections by fighting what officials call an "epidemic" of red-light running?
Elected officials in Clearwater and Oldsmar who voted for the cameras insist that it's not about revenue, it's about deterring dangerous driving.
"I'm convinced we're better off as a society, as a community, to use photo-enhanced traffic enforcement to educate people about the wisdom of slowing down when you see a yellow light instead of speeding up," said former Clearwater City Council member John Doran.
Oldsmar Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland, a staunch supporter, says the cameras send a message to motorists: "What we're telling people is, 'Do not speed through the city of Oldsmar. Do not run red lights in the city of Oldsmar.' "
Cameras will be watching two intersections in Clearwater and four in Oldsmar. In installing the devices, the two cities follow on the heels of St. Petersburg, Tampa, Hillsborough County, Temple Terrace, Port Richey, Kenneth City, Gulfport and South Pasadena.
Cameras will watch the eastbound and westbound lanes of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard at Belcher Road, as well as the eastbound lanes of Chestnut Street at Fort Harrison Avenue. Those intersections saw the most crashes due to red-light running over the last three years, traffic officials say.
Beginning Sunday, drivers caught on camera running red lights will receive tickets in the mail without any fines. Beginning July 31, there will be fines.
Clearwater's City Council voted 3-2 in November to sign a six-month contract with Redflex Traffic Systems. For installing and maintaining the cameras, the Arizona company will earn ticket revenue of $13,000 a month.
If in six months, red-light violations drop by at least 15 percent, the program will be automatically extended another three years. To end the program early, the city would need to pay Redflex up to $81,000 in fees.
Although supporters think the cameras will cut down on crashes, critics such as Mayor George Cretekos worry that they'll lead to more accidents due to sudden stops.
A proposal for a more expansive program with eight red-light cameras was spiked last year after officials said legal push-back had contributed to "confusion over the (cameras') effectiveness." Days later, council members approved the six-month pilot program.
The city has made no projections on the number of expected violations or fines, said police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts. In the first six months of running cameras, St. Petersburg and Tampa have earned about $1 million each in fines. Camera vendors and the state, which earn a large part of ticket revenue, earned millions more.
City employees, including police officers, suspected of running a red light would see different treatment, Watts said. Their departments would be notified of the citation and discipline would be handled internally, starting with written or verbal warnings — without fines. St. Petersburg and Port Richey use similar policies.
Oldsmar is putting cameras at four intersections. After issuing warnings to violators for the next month, the city will start fining them on Aug. 1.
Oldsmar's City Council voted 4-1 in December to approve a five-year contract with American Traffic Solutions to install and maintain the devices.
The dissenting vote was Vice Mayor Doug Bevis, who was bothered by how much money from the tickets goes into state coffers and how that money is used. Oldsmar plans to dedicate its revenues to public safety or transportation needs.
A year before that December vote, city leaders had unanimously okayed the cameras. But they stalled the plan last fall after Mayor Jim Ronecker questioned the accuracy of the technology. He later said that getting more information had eased his concerns.
Also, data involving red-light cameras shows that violations tend to decrease over time. That means revenue generally takes a dip, too. Some cities end up owing vendors money. City Council members got assurances that Oldsmar wouldn't be on the hook if that happens.
Oldsmar will pay $19,000 a month to lease cameras at four sites. American Traffic Solutions will be paid from collections from the violations. But if the city doesn't make enough to cover monthly lease fees, it won't be responsible for the difference.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.